A priest and three men linked to the Guatemalan military were convicted today in connection with the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, who led a truth commission that blamed the military for most of the 200,000 deaths in Guatemala's long civil war.
The convictions by a three-judge tribunal were hailed by civil rights advocates as a landmark for a nation where the rule of law is unstable and many officials remain unwilling to confront the events of the 36-year civil war, which ended in December 1996.
The tribunal handed down murder convictions against retired army Col. Byron Lima Estrada; his son Byron Lima Oliva, an army captain; and a former presidential bodyguard, Jose Obdulio Villanueva. It sentenced them each to 30 years in prison. A Roman Catholic priest, Mario Orantes, was sentenced to 20 years as an accessory.
Gerardi was found bludgeoned to death April 26, 1998, two days after releasing the report compiled by the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The case was delayed for three years as prosecutors, witnesses and a judge fled the country because of death threats.
Members of Guatemalan human rights groups waited all night in a packed courtroom to hear the sentences. Others held a candlelit vigil outside with banners bearing Gerardi's image.
Dressed in a medal-laden military uniform as police led him away in handcuffs, Lima Oliva, who had remained stone-faced throughout the sentencing, accused judges of taking bribes in the case.
Lawyers for the defendants said they would appeal the sentences.
Testimony at the trial shone a spotlight on a controversial presidential bodyguard unit linked to postwar military intelligence, to which Lima Oliva and Villanueva belonged at different times.